It seems that perfection is attained, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to take away. — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
In the five years since Steve Jobs died, I’ve generally resisted the urge to compare his tenure at Apple with Tim Cook’s. Given the long lead times in product development, it was never fair to arbitrarily pick a point and say that this product represented Steve Jobs’ quintessential leadership, while that product represented Tim Cook. That is, until today. Tim Cook has left his mark on Apple, but it’s not the company’s iPhone, iPad, or Mac products that distinguish him from his predecessor — it’s the dongles.
The absurdity of the situation is neatly captured by the following fact: None of Apple’s newest laptops can connect to its own flagship smartphones without using a dongle. There are no Lightning to USB-C cables — you’ll need a dongle to convert USB-C to standard USB (Type A if we’re being technical).
I’ve got nothing against dongles. Over the years I’ve been in computing, I’ve purchased dozens, and hung on to dozens more. I’ve still got a few DVI-to-VGA and keyboard PS/2-to-USB adapters hanging around the house, on the off chance that a friend or neighbor will need to retrieve data off a PC that’s old enough to vote. Twist my arm, and I’ll admit I even have a 3.5-inch floppy drive in storage, along with a few floppy drive cables. Dongles are great. Dongles are useful. But dongles were always the antithesis of what Apple claimed the Macintosh was all about.
In the early 1990s, Apple mocked Microsoft and the PC ecosystem for being overly complicated and requiring all manner of clutter to actually make hardware function smoothly. Granted, this was always more a marketing play than a demonstration of technical superiority. Macs, too, could be upgraded and extended, and some of those upgrades were necessary if you wanted to use them for certain tasks. But Apple products have historically focused on offering what you needed or would need without requiring you to carry a cable bag.
I’m not a Mac owner — apart from a corporate laptop I used back in 2008, I’ve never used a Mac as a daily driver. But I do follow the evolution of Mac hardware, and the biggest trend we’ve seen since Tim Cook took over is the proliferation of dongles in the Mac ecosystem. The late-2013 revised Mac Pro kicked off the trend. The 2012 Mac Pro had 5x USB 2.0 ports, 4x FireWire 800 ports, dedicated digital audio ports, four internal drive bays, a SuperDrive, and dual gigabit Ethernet ports. The 2013 Mac Pro kept the dual gigabit Ethernet and swapped five USB 2.0 ports for 4x USB 3.0 ports, but dumped the FireWire 800 standard, dedicated digital audio, internal drive bays, expandable PCIe cards, and the SuperDrive. In their place, it offered 6x Thunderbolt 2 ports and the dongles you’d need to connect your old hardware to the new standard.
In March 2015, Apple unveiled the MacBook Retina, a new machine with just two ports: A USB Type-C port for charging (and everything else), and a headphone jack. Reviews noted this as a significant limitation of the machine, with some publications declaring that the lack of I/O support was a deal breaker. Apple must have liked what it saw from sales figures, because the MacBook refresh earlier this year added a faster CPU, more RAM, and a new “rose gold” color — but not any more ports. Then, in the last six weeks, Apple dumped the iPhone 7’s headphone jack and got rid of everything but USB-C across its entire refreshed line of MacBook Pros, which brings us to the current ridiculous situation, in which you can’t buy a cable that can plug your iPhone 7 into your MacBook Pro.
Apple has a long history of dumping standards long before the rest of the PC industry is ready to follow suit. But Jobs and Cook went about it in very different ways. Under Jobs, Apple phased out certain standards, but it was always careful to either replace them with new technologies (the floppy to CD-ROM shift, for example), or to keep standards that gave customers a relatively simple way to maintain the same level of functionality via widely established standards like USB. Were there dongles? Absolutely — but dongles didn’t wield near-total control over your ability to interface with your own hardware. Tim Cook has blazed an entirely different path for himself, and I agree with Chris Matyszczyk at CNET: There was a time when Apple openly mocked this strategy. Now, it’s embraced it.
One way of interpreting Cook’s headlong charge into donglehood is to argue that he’s just doing what Apple has always done, but that he’s been a bit too aggressive about it, pulling capabilities across entire product lines where Jobs tended to keep at least a few options open for a longer period of time. Another is that Cook, who started as Apple’s Senior VP for worldwide operations and has a reputation for cost-cutting and supply chain management, realizes how much cash the dongle and accessory market is potentially worth, and is willing to compromise Apple’s design sensibility in his search for additional revenue.
While the total amount wouldn’t be terribly large in comparison to the company’s smartphone and tablet business, dongles have proliferated across Apple products in a way that implies they’re there for a reason — and it sure as heck isn’t because the company’s professional customers have been begging to replace integrated SD card slots, HDMI support, and USB 3.0 ports with dongles. We also doubt they’re particularly thrilled with the 16GB RAM limit on the MacBook Pro — a limit Apple has stuck to since it launched its 2010 MacBook Pro refresh.
There’s been some discussion, after last week, on whether Apple and Microsoft have switched places, with Redmond pushing the envelope in terms of what PCs could be, while Apple plays it safe and makes fairly modest changes to its hardware. I don’t really think that’s true — Microsoft is pushing Surface into some of the only niche PC markets that have seen sustained growth in the past few years. Gaming PCs, high-end sales, and business/workstation products have all been relatively strong categories compared with the general market, which has taken a beating.
Put simply, Redmond wants to go premium because the mass market is still collapsing. Apple’s Touch Bar may or may not prove to be an enduring invention — this article argues that it’s a useful UI advance that’s designed to work with a laptop’s indirect interface, as opposed to the direct interface on Apple’s iPhones and iPads — but we won’t be able to judge that until we see what developers do with the new capability.
For now, Tim Cook’s major gift to the world, his enduring contribution to Apple hardware design, seems to be the dongle. We’d humbly suggest he’s holding it wrong misreading Saint-Exupéry. And there’s no missing the fact that under Tim Cook, Apple’s laptops have grown markedly more expensive. To quote Ars Technica’s review of the $1,499 13-inch MacBook Pro: “The Mac Mini is two years old, the Mac Pro is three years old, and the iMac just missed out on a yearly refresh for the first time since the 2012 models came out. The company is serving its entry-level Mac customers by selling them 2015’s laptops virtually unchanged for the same price as it sold them for last year.”
When Steve Jobs unveiled and later improved the MacBook Air, he set the standard that PC ultrabooks would strive to follow and best, with varying degrees of success. So far, no consumer product Apple has launched in 2016 has been anything like an equivalent trendsetter. If the future of PCs is a tiny machine and a lap full of accessories, I’ll stick with the status quo. Yes, in the very long run, we may see a world in which USB-C is used for almost everything — but HDMI, USB Type A, DisplayPort, Lightning, and SD cards aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.